A Studio Really Suggested Julia Roberts Could Play Harriet Tubman

We know Hollywood is a whitewashed ignorant business — we have actual proof of that

Photo: Wikimedia/Public Domain

Photo: Wikimedia/Public Domain

We know Hollywood is a whitewashed ignorant business — we have actual proof of that. Yesterday, however, we got another hearty helping of their mentality when screenwriter and producer Gregory Allen Howard revealed that a Hollywood executive suggested Julia Roberts portray the iconic Harriet Tubman in a film.

In a Q&A interview, Howard said he had been shopping around a film proposal on the life of the American abolitionist for years. An executive he was speaking to, suggested that Roberts could portray Tubman. Hmmm… a white woman playing a black historical figure? Let’s ponder that for a second. Could that actually work? Howard said that the executive responded to the pushback to his suggestion by saying, “It was so long ago. No one is going to know the difference.”

So let’s review that statement: A wealthy influential Hollywood filmmaker said that a white woman could play a black revolutionary nonfictional person and that audiences wouldn’t care. The thing is, he is not entirely wrong. How many times have we seen white people portray people of color? Countless numbers of times. Howard said it was a “different time back then,” but is it really?

Thanks to social media, people can vocalize their opinion about a project before the film is even made, and that has had a significant effect on Hollywood. However, the proof of whitewashing can be seen in films such as Angelina Jolie playing a real person — Mariane Pearl, a French-born woman of Afro-Cuban and Dutch heritage — in A Mighty Heart. Scarlett Johannson played a Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell, Emma Stone was supposed to be a character that was half Chinese and of Hawaiian descent in Aloha. Zoe Saldana also got backlash from the family of Nina Simone when she portrayed the famous singer in a movie. Just this year we saw legendary actress Meryl Streep play a Latina in The Laundromat.

Howard got to make his dream movie about Tubman in the recently released film Harriet, which is played by British actress Cynthia Erivo. He said the main reason why his film could be made today is that film executives now see that black movies make money.

Two films really changed the climate in Hollywood to allow Harriet to be made. When 12 Years a Slave became a hit and did a couple hundred million dollars worldwide, I told my agent, ‘You can’t say this kind of story won’t make money now.’ Then Black Panther really blew the doors open.”

Yes, it’s true, black movies bring in massive revenue in the Box Office. The film industry has changed somewhat. The real change, however, in which we see an accurate, diverse representation depicted in the big screen, is still prevalent in Hollywood. And unfortunately, we don’t see that changing anytime soon.

In this Article

film hollywood representation
More on this topic